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The burial they deserved

April 09, 2006

CHINESE IMMIGRANTS AND THEIR descendants have had a long and unhappy relationship with Southern California's various rail systems. The first "coolies" were brought here after the Gold Rush to lay railroad track in slavery-like conditions, then faced decades of legalized discrimination, vigilante violence and withering workaday racism from the leading lights of local society. (Present company included: "The Chinese race," this newspaper editorialized in 1900, "is the human mystery of the ages. What can we do with a people like that?")

L.A.'s original Chinatown, after half a century of tenuous existence as a self-contained slum and black market for forbidden goods and services, was seized using eminent domain in the 1930s and razed to make way for Union Station, forcing 3,000 residents to start over elsewhere, their history literally paved over. Now the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has dug up Chinese bones and burial artifacts in Boyle Heights as part of its excavation work for the Gold Line extension. Members of the local Chinese American community say the MTA was too slow to tell them about this archeological discovery of cultural importance and historical shame.

The remains of more than 100 humans, mostly Asian males, were discovered in June under the corner of Lorena and East 1st streets, along with various rice bowls, jade bracelets and opium pipes. But the MTA did not tell a local community review board until last month that most of the remains were of people of Asian descent.

The Chinese Historical Society of Southern California believes that MTA diggers have stumbled upon a long-lost Chinese potter's field, in the shadow of the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery, which (like much of official Los Angeles) barred Chinese from its property a century ago. The society says it only heard about the find in late 2005 through a whistle-blower on the site, and had to confront the MTA to receive affirmation.

Adding insult to injury, historians touring the site found excavated Chinese headstones being used as decorative lawn ornaments. The MTA claims that part of the reason for its delay is that the skeletons needed to be examined by professional archeologists.

The county Board of Supervisors last month ordered an investigation into why the MTA didn't realize its tunnel route stood a good chance of disrupting a known burial ground. It also announced that it is soliciting proposals for a memorial or historical exhibition about the site, and told the MTA (which it oversees) to provide "a dignified and fitting burial for these discovered remains, as well as future remains discovered through excavation." A proper reburial ceremony at Evergreen, with the highest-ranking public officials in attendance, is the least Los Angeles owes some of its hardest-working natives.

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